I recently received in the mail an advance copy of the Bill Charlap Trio’s upcoming CD, a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard. (Blue Note will be releasing it in May.) I happened to be on hand for one of the sets taped for inclusion in this album. Sometimes the heat of the moment can fool you into thinking that a live performance is better than it is, so I was delighted, though not surprised, to hear that this one was every bit as good as I’d remembered.
I’ve lived in New York for a quarter-century and spent a considerable number of my nights on the town, so it’s not surprising that I’ve been present at the creation of a fair number of noteworthy live albums. After scanning my memory and my record shelves, I came up with six others: Bill Frisell’s East/West, Jim Hall’s Magic Meeting, Nancy LaMott’s Live at Tavern on the Green, Marian McPartland’s Reprise: Marian McPartland’s Hickory House Trio, the John Pizzarelli Trio’s Live at Birdland, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Live at the Jazz Standard: Days of Wine and Roses.
All were memorable occasions, though Nancy’s last engagement at Tavern on the Green was and is understandably special, as I explained in a Wall Street Journal column published in 2005:
“Live at Tavern on the Green” is the only recording of any of Nancy’s live shows to have been released commercially. It was taped at her final public performance. She was wearing a wig, having lost her bottle-blond hair to chemotherapy. Seven weeks later, she was dead. Yet her sweetly husky mezzo-soprano voice had somehow remained untouched by the terrible disease that would soon take her away from all the things for which she’d longed, and she sang as if she knew she’d never have another chance. When she was done, the Chestnut Room of New York’s Tavern on the Green exploded in rapturous applause. That’s how I remember it, anyway, and I was there.
Only a handful of people who came to the Chestnut Room on that crisp October night in 1995 knew how sick Nancy was. I was one of them. I had been among the first journalists to write about her for a national magazine, and we became friends after my piece came out. A year and a half later, I watched her perform for the last time, wondering whether she’d make it to the end of the show.
She did, of course–Nancy was a trouper, never more so than on that night–and my memory has assured me ever since that she sang her best the whole evening long. But memories can sometimes tell you only what you want to hear, and I felt a strange fluttering of nerves as I put the CD on the stereo. I didn’t need to worry. The voice on “Live at Tavern on the Green” is the same one I heard countless times in 1994 and 1995, warm, soulful and easy to love.
Such experiences are only available to those who get out often enough, and though this one was especially intense, I treasure many more happy memories of the countless evenings I’ve spent sitting in nightclubs, concert halls, and theaters, waiting for magic to happen. Not all of them–I could have done without Lennon–but going to bad performances is the price you pay for going to good ones, and most of the time I’m more than glad to pay it.
I got lucky twice in a row last week. On Thursday I went up to Symphony Space to hear the Trio Solisti play Mendelssohn’s C Minor Trio, Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, and Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy. Paul, who is a friend of mine, was hosting the concert, the last in a series called The Composers Project of which he was the curator. It suddenly occurred to him late that afternoon that he couldn’t very well interview himself, so he called me up and asked if I’d do the honors. I said yes, put on my Black Outfit, and caught the next cab north. We improvised an interview segment that came off quite nicely, after which the Trio Solisti and an excellent clarinetist named Alan Kay played the hell out of Paul’s piece.
The next night I went down to Lincoln Center’s Allen Room to hear Bill Charlap in a concert called “The Birth of Cool.” This time all I had to do was sit and listen, and I was looking forward to doing so, for Charlap is my favorite mainstream jazz pianist. Much of the music, alas, was too miscellaneous to suit me: Charlap’s preternaturally tight trio was augmented by a long parade of guest artists who were present to pay tribute to such noted musicians of the past as Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Claude Thornhill, and Lennie Tristano, and Lester Young. I don’t much care for that kind of program and wouldn’t have gone to this one, which felt at times more like a lecture-recital than a gig, if I’d known what to expect.
Even so, you can’t spend an evening with Charlap without hearing something beautiful, and I was greatly taken with a super-slow version of “You Go to My Head” in which Mary Stallings and Frank Wess saluted Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Wess, a celebrated Count Basie alumnus, is eighty-four years old and visibly fragile, and he’d had trouble getting off the ground on the first couple of numbers, but the feathery obbligato he played behind Stallings’ Carmen McRae-ish vocal was exquisite, while Charlap’s velvety piano accompaniment couldn’t have been bettered.
I interviewed Charlap five years ago for a New York Times profile, and he said something to me then that I’ve never forgotten:
People still worry about innovation and modernity a lot, but the best you can do as an artist, what you ought to do, is be yourself, here and now. If that self is avant-garde, so be it. But maybe who you are is something else. The things I like to listen to have purity and are balanced, and I hope my playing is getting more like that. More honest. Maybe that sounds pretentious, but I think jazz is all about being honest. About being who you are, never playing anything you don’t mean. At the same time, you’re not there to impress people. You want to get your ego out of the way. The music doesn’t need it. It’s never just about me. That’s the best I can say it–I’m trying to get out of the way. The less I’m in the way, the better the music is going to be and the more fun I’m going to have.
I like that–a lot.